My angels, when they decide to show up for work, are my friends in high places. But I, along with all pilots, have a friend in low places too. She goes by the rather awkward name of Ground Effect. It is one of the least poetic of aviation monikers (she once whispered to me that she would prefer the sexy, French name “Pitot Heat”), but when she shows up she can indeed be quite poetic.
Aeronautical textbooks tell me that this angel is the “increased lift and decreased aerodynamic drag that an aircraft’s wings generate when they are close to a fixed surface.” That surface is typically the ground, and so a simpler definition of ground effect is an airplane’s increased performance as it launches skyward and touches down.
As you touch down, ground effect feels like a friend, a soft cushion, or a nurse with sweet, knowing eyes as you wake up from a coma in a foreign hospital. And as you depart skyward, ground effect temporarily adds a little oomph to the launch, a gentle assist, a glance and a wink from the girl on the barstool that you imagine might actually happen someday.
Those of us who have lived long enough to tell stories have undoubtedly encountered such effects in our lives. It may appear to be the guardian angel who intervenes when the doctor calls and says that the test results were negative, or the mother who picks you up and comforts you when you come home in tears after being hit between the eyes by a snowball that turned into ice as it rapidly reached its target.
Having a purposeful life—a life of service to others, functions similarly to ground effect as well, as a balm for bitterness and regret. Having a life filled with service to others not only cushions others’ hard landings, but eases our own burdens as well. Emerson said, “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”
Ground effect can fool you, though, into believing you are flying better than you are, and has undoubtedly contributed to some pilots meeting their maker just as they meet that hill in front of them that they initially thought they could climb over. That is because on takeoff, the effect of improving your ability to fly will get you off the ground quicker than if ground effect didn’t exist, and as you climb and exit ground effect, you experience a reduction in flying ability and the airplane will lose some lift and sink. While pilots are trained to “fly out of ground effect” and adjust as they make their way through this transition, especially when combined with a hot, humid or high altitude situation, they fail to consider just how difficult it can be to climb once the extra support of ground effect leaves you and the airplane behind.
Sometimes, expecting that ground effect will ease your transition from air to earth, it will seem as if it is doing its job too well, and delaying your appointment with the runway. If you find yourself running out of runway before the airplane touches down, ground effect may seem like that good friend that Oscar Wilde reminds us stabs us in the front. It becomes the friend who tells us straight up that our zippers are down, or that you left that long sticker on the back of your pants that lets everyone know how big your waist is.
Physics will have a good explanation for those occasions when ground effect seems to work too well for its own good, or when it seems absent entirely and I land with an unwelcome thud. I have always landed hard on myself when my airplane lands hard on the runway, but perhaps it isn’t really my fault. Although I may have had a good flight, my angelic friends in high places keeping me safe as I leave the ground, cruise, and begin my descent, maybe that thud as I land hard is just my friend in low places failing to show up when I need her. Angels, I guess, occasionally need some time off.